In the mid-1970s, Gloria Estefan was studying psychology, international law and French at the University of Miami and singing with a local band on the side. She was planning to head to the Sorbonne to further her studies. But then Emilio Estefan swept her off her feet, and their band, the Miami Sound Machine, would soon sweep the nation with its Conga beat.
Estefan never made it to the Sorbonne, but she launched an enduring musical career that has made her into a beloved international artist.
Thirty-five years later, she remains married to that first and only boyfriend. And the seven-time Grammy winner has now released "The Standards," an album of classic American tunes with a Gloria Estefan twist. It opens with "Good Morning Heartache," and moves on to songs like "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "What A Difference A Day Makes," "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar" and "Young at Heart."
The album, she said, brings her career back to some of those first shaky steps onto the national stage.
"It's such a natural thing for me, something that I wanted to do so long and 25 years ago when I danced the conga on 'The Tonight Show.' I sang 'Good Morning Heartache' with my piano player as a second song and this is like full circle," Estefan said. "That's why it starts the record."
Fans know her dance hits like "Conga," "Hotel Nacional," "Wepa" and "Rhythm is Gonna Get You." But there's something about the ballads -- "Coming out of the Dark", "Higher" -- that make the heart ache.
Behind the big voice, the singer says she's a mom who's missing her daughter, who just left for college. She describes herself as analytical, "a klutz," a boater with a captain's license, a cook of "killer pancakes," a great eyebrow plucker and the go-to diagnoser of maladies for her friends.
"I'm sure I was a doctor in some other life, because I'm a good diagnostician. I listen and they call me and go 'Hey this happened, what do you think? What should I take?'" she said. " I'm pretty spot-on on all that stuff. Dr. Glo -- the doctor is in."
She says she's still a student -- a woman who learns and evolves with every new phase in life.
In this edited conversation, Estefan tells CNN about why she made this album now, and about the life-threatening accident that helped to shape who she is.
CNN: What can you tell your fans about why you did this new album?
Estefan: I love this project -- it's very close to my heart because it was music that really started inspiring me in so many ways when I was a kid. I was a kid (who loved music), so I sang since I talked. When I was watching Andy Williams and Dean Martin (and Frank Sinatra) as a little girl, I was really listening to the music.
So this ... is what really led the way for me to do my ballads, and to write the music that I wrote. Because most of the stuff I've done really is the ballads. It came from (the heart).
CNN: So it sounds like this emotional journey through your life.
Estefan: It is very much so. "What A Difference A Day Makes" is the first song I sang with Miami Latin Boys on October 25 of 1975, my first professional gig. And we did it in disco, because Viola Wills had just put out that version and it was killer and disco was superhot. But I chose that song for that reason.
CNN: You were severely injured when your tour bus was involved in an accident in 1990, and you performed an emotional tribute at the American Music Awards in 1991. How would you describe who you were before and who you were after the accident?
Estefan: I'm the same person before and after, but I got to tell you, first of all my knees were knocking that day and I thought, 'People are still going to think I'm still paralyzed and I really can't walk!'
What's different is this: I'm very clear on the power of prayer and that fact that it is an energy that connects us. A good thought, not in a religious way, but just in (an) energy way. When you put out good thoughts and good feelings to other human beings, it gets there, and it really does affect you. And I internalized it and it was part of my recuperation. So, I learned that.
I learned about a lot of discipline that I didn't know that I had. Patience. Incredible amounts of patience I had to learn. And although I am that way, it grew exponentially.
I learned to be a lot more expressive. It made my music more expressive because I realized that could have been it. I was very close to biting it at 32 years old. So I made it a point to really tell people how I feel about them and express -- if I love them, I tell them. My music became a lot more expressive, my way of emoting, 'cause music has always been my way of emoting ... I just let go. I let go a lot.
The reason I said that this album couldn't have been made before is because, even beyond that, everything I've experienced until now, I feel so good in my own skin and I'm so much more open and free and just able to let go of a million things that help when you're doing something like these songs.
CNN: So how does the diagnostician part of your identity reflect itself in this current album?
Estefan: Well, maybe because I'm a control freak in certain things when it comes to work! This is my first production top to bottom, it's been my baby, everything from the idea, the picking of the songs, even the cover, all the photos.
CNN: You and your husband, Emilio, have spoken candidly about the political situation in Cuba and your pride in your Cuban-American roots. What are your thoughts on who you are as a Cuban-American woman now, versus when you began?
Estefan: I think it's important that we maintain our culture -- all of us, not just Hispanics. You're only stronger if you really know where you came from and you have so much to offer.